Why did Vader need a cape? I don't think it was something that his life was dependent on? Why have the cape, if all it is just a drawback, and hinders your movement.

Does the canon explain this further?

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    In particular: Why was the cape so crucial that it was attached already on the operating table where Vader first received his life-support suit, before he even stands on his own feet for the first time? ;) – O. R. Mapper Apr 11 '15 at 7:40
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    His cape has a pocket in which he can hide Anakin clothes.. – Baby Yoda Apr 11 '15 at 9:03
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    According to his wiki page, the cape was made of armour-weave and was fireproof and prevented dirt/grit from entering his life-support systems. – Valorum Apr 11 '15 at 9:45
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    out of universe vader was designed during a time during which guys with capes were thought of as the coolest badasses available (example superman films),...a – Thomas Apr 11 '15 at 13:33
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    @Thomas: Apparently Edna did not exist there... – arc_lupus Apr 11 '15 at 14:49

Within the main (LucasFilm approved) canon, the answer is no. There don't appear to be any reasons given to explain why Vader wears a cape, nor whether it has any use beyond the merely ornamental.

The closest I've found is from the official novelisation of "A New Hope" where it appears that the cloak is worn primarily for its intimidating effect:

As if on command, everyone — Imperial troops as well as rebels — became silent as a massive caped form came into view from behind a turn in the passage. Two of the heretofore resolute, obstinate rebel officers began to shake. Stopping before one of the men, the towering figure reached out wordlessly. A massive hand closed around the man’s neck and lifted him off the deck. The rebel officer’s eyes bulged, but he kept his silence.

Note that every single one of Ralph McQuarrie's concept art sketches of Vader had a cloak, albeit of varying lengths and designs:

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  • In 1977, capes were so in. Who's ready to bring it back? – MAF Apr 13 '15 at 13:48

Vader was based on an old (possibly the first) costumed Supervillian from the 1930s ...who wore a cape

I suppose this doesn't answer your question very well at all, but it's interesting Vader / cape related.

As Richard points out, there is no in-canon explanation.

But I read this somewhere online a few months back, I can't remember where, I'm searching for the source...

Lucas based Vader on Lightning from The Fighting Devil Dogs which first aired in 1938.

enter image description here

In fact just Googling fighting devil dogs darth vader produces a bunch of side by side images of the two:

enter image description here

An early Vader sketch:

enter image description here

Even the Stormtroopers look like Lightning's goons:

enter image description here

Enjoy the show!

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    NoW this is interesting. Has Lucas ever commented on the similarity? – Valorum Apr 22 '15 at 5:40
  • @Richard I can't find any direct quotes or citations. It's mainly bloggers and the like. I'm still trying to remember the original article I read it in. – Daft Apr 22 '15 at 7:25
  • I have never heard of this. Very interesting! I love the similarities in the pictures you found! – Nomkins Apr 22 '15 at 14:25
  • @Nomkins I had actually never heard of it myself until I stumbled across it. – Daft Apr 22 '15 at 14:28

It served a few purposes. As mentioned above, it was intimidating. It was also functional - it served as an additional layer of armor; it hid from view his air filtration unit and heat regulation system, which were contained in a flat backpack; it protected that backpack from damage; and it prevented dust, dirt, sand, grit, etc, from contaminating the air filters.

From the Wookieepedia page on Darth Vader's armor:

The outer cape... was made out of armorweave, as it provided protection from environmental damage and was light enough for adequate movement. The cape also acted as a protective cloak designed to block fire and acid jets, thus helping protect the suit's electronics. Similarly, the cape also minimized the possibility of grit and other contaminants from entering and potentially clogging up the filter...

The durasteel material was gray in hue with several black vertical stripes. Around the neck of the full-shoulder pauldron was a black chain, and connected to the upper seam of the armor was Vader's black, flowing, nearly floor-length armorweave cape...

Vader's helmet was the center of the life-support system. It was fitted with an air pump, which was connected to a flat filter system worn on Vader's back. Together, the backpack and the air pump continuously cycled purified air through Vader's ravaged lungs...

The mask itself went halfway around Vader's head. The mask's appearance was given a similar appearance to a skull in order to enhance the fear factor of the Dark Lord of the Sith. The top of this mask was crowned with a circular interface dotted with an array of square slots around a disc of silver. This disc seemed to serve as an interface between the mask and the helmet. Made of black durasteel, these components were hermetically sealed and connected with a flat backpack that cycled air to Vader's lungs...

Around his entire abdominal area, he wore a plastoid girdle that protected his organic and synthetic internal organs, and on his back, hidden by his cloak, he wore a flat black backpack...

The suit's temperature is likewise regulated via a heating unit installed on the back...

It had its drawbacks, howver:

The weighty cloak and pectoral plating so restricted his movement that he had difficulty lifting his arms over his head, only doing so when necessary...

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